Sunday, 8 September 2013

Little Parcels- Big Flavors!

Carciofini al Cartoccio, Gratinate
Artichokes, Steamed in Little Parcels and Toasted

Oh, it had been a while... and Nina had such lovely baby artichokes, all the way from the Mother Country yesterday, that I couldn't resist! Along with eggplants and cardoons, I think that artichokes are one of the main flavors that I personally associate with Sicily. I could never really understand what the point was as a child and was never sure that I liked them, until I started eating them. That's where the genes kick-in I suppose. No- not my trousers- but the things that make me Sicilian through and through, even though I may have been born in England many moons ago. Thanks mom and dad!

We Sicilians (and of course many millions of other people!), love artichokes. But something you won't find us doing in Sicily is dipping them into anything! No, no, no- when we make them, we make sure that plenty of flavor cooks into them- we don't simply steam them and then dip them into something to add aroma. And this evening, I decided to try another way to get as much flavor INTO the artichokes as possible- and came up with this little idea for us! Hope you like it!

Obviously, there are some basic steps that remain the same when preparing artichokes- whether large or small. So, I cut off the top third of the leaves, snapped off the tougher outer ones and then peeled away the outer, rough skin on the stem with a small knife. As soon as the artichoke was cut, I drizzled it with lemon juice to prevent it from oxidizing and turning brown too quickly. 

I then made a small cut into the soft flesh of the artichoke directly below the "choke" in the center- which then lifted out very easily. This is the single most important step... miss-out doing this and you will find out why these things are called "chokes" in English! So with the basic prep work done, I could now get busy with getting some flavor into these little beauties!

The best flavors for artichoke are and always will be, parsley and mint. So I chopped up plenty of both, mixed together- nice and easy. I then sliced up some sun-dried tomatoes. I had dried cherry tomatoes, but obviously, the regular ones are also perfect! 

Next step was tear off a length of around 5" of aluminum foil and then tear that in half length-ways. This gave me 2 pieces of foil for 2 artichoke halves. I folded over each end of the foil to reinforce it somewhat and set the artichoke in the middle. I sprinkled it generously with herbs, salt and pepper and added a few strips of tomato, A few drops of olive oil, a light drizzle of water (which will disappear in between the layers of leaves) and I was ready to seal my parcels. I placed the two double-folded ends together and folded them again, twice. I kept the parcel rather loose as I wanted it to remain intact when I opened them later. The sides I simply "scrunched" together... life is too short to fuss over things too much!

I popped the foil parcels onto my little steam rack, set it into my little saucepan and added a little water- these are only little artichokes after all! Haha. And then I steamed them for 45 minutes, until they were soft and tender and delicious! You will need to be very careful opening them as they will be very, very hot- so I recommend simply letting them cool for 5-10 minutes before moving on to the next step... or better still- to prepare that whilst the steamed artichokes cool off.

The next step was of course to prepare the topping that would cover the artichokes and be baked to a crisp. I made this from plain bread crumbs, to which I added the remaining chopped herbs and sun-dried-tomatoes, grated Parmesan cheese, just a little salt (as the tomatoes and the cheese are already rather salty), pepper and a little nutmeg. Again- the typical, classic flavors... because nothing else comes close to tasting this good!

I opened the parcels once they were cool and spooned a generous amount of the topping onto each artichoke. I then drizzled each one with a little olive oil and a little water. That may sound weird, but it will help keep the bread crumbs in one place until the cheese melts in the oven.

The other good thing about this preparation is that being as the artichokes are sitting in their little aluminum "cradles", you can put them straight onto a rack and not even get a tray or baking dish dirty- just one more reason to love this!

And into a hot oven they went for 10 minutes- 250°F should be fine. And around 10 minutes later, I gave them an extra minute or so under the broiler- just to get the color perfect- and the flavor of course!

The great thing here is that the artichokes of course were not boiled, as they usually would be, thus keeping all of the rich flavors of the sun-dried-tomato, parsley and mint trapped in these small parcels and not simply poured away down the sink- as would usually be the case... so the flavor is very, very rich... and very, very nice!

The best way to eat these is of course with your hands and what you want to do is to pick them up from the top end and bite into the tender, soft stalk-end... this should give you 2 good bites of rich and aromatic artichoke at least, before you get to any inedible, tough end pieces. Unless of course you are as lucky as I was with 2 of these and they are tender through and through! And you may well be surprised at just how succulent and juicy they taste!

These would make great appetizers and I think they look cool in their silver wrappers- almost like an oyster shell in their appearance. In any case they make totally delicious and elegant snacks- with the tangy sweet tomato, the crispy crumbs, the yummy cheese and the aromatic herbs... what more could you want? Except for maybe a second helping!

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